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Healthier Meal Programs In US Schools Would Boost Costs

October 20, 2009

A report released Tuesday warned that improving nutritional value of U.S. school food programs by increasing servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains could increase the cost of breakfast by as much as 25 percent and lunch by 9 percent, Reuters reported.

Updating school meal programs would meet nutritional needs and foster better eating habits, but healthier, fresher ingredients would boost costs, especially at breakfast where fruit servings would increase, according to the report from the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academies.

Virginia Stallings, a professor at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chair of the group that conducted the study, said such updates would cost a little more, but they would be a very wise investment in children’s health.

The report said that most school food providers would need more government money to help pay for food, training and equipment.

The U.S. Agriculture Department requested that the Institute of Medicine conduct the review of the country’s school breakfast and lunch programs, since most school meal programs provide 40 million meals daily and more than half of students’ food and nutrient intake during the school day.

The $21 billion a year child nutrition programs are due for reauthorization this year but Congress is not expected to approve an overhaul for some time.

USDA officials said they are updating the nutrition and meal requirements used for school breakfast and lunch programs, and looked for recommendations from the Institute of Medicine.

That framework sets food and nutrient standards that must be met by school programs to qualify for cash reimbursements and food from the government, but they haven’t been updated since 1995. The new proposal by IOM would focus on types and quantities of food rather than individual nutrient standards.

The report also pushed for school meals with higher nutrient targets and it proposes to gradually lower sodium levels during the next 10 years. Maximum calorie levels would be capped depending on the grade level.

It also suggested schools should ensure half or more of the grains and breads they provide contain 50 percent or more whole grains.

Other recommendations included increasing fruit in breakfasts to 1 cup per day for all grades and in lunches to 1 cup per day for students in grades nine-12. It also suggested vegetables be increased to 3/4 cup per day for grades K-eight, and 1 cup per day for grades nine-12, with a focus on a greater variety of vegetables.

It stated that schools would serve a greater amount and variety of fruits and vegetables if these recommendations were implemented.

As of now, the amount of fruits and vegetables required to be served varies depending on what type of government approved menu plan is being used.

The report also recommended that schools which allow students to decline individual items rather than take a whole meal should require them to take at least one serving of fruits or vegetables at each meal.

The meal programs currently have no such requirement.

The National School Lunch Program is available in 99 percent of U.S. public schools and in 83 percent of private and public schools combined. The School Breakfast Program is available in 85 percent of public schools.

About 30.6 million schoolchildren — 60 percent — participated daily in the school lunch program in fiscal year 2007, and 10.1 million children ate school breakfasts. Participating schools served about 5.1 billion lunches and 1.7 billion breakfasts that year.

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